‘Disabled people aren’t “supposed” to do things like this. Which is precisely why I did.’
– Jody McIntyre
(PwD Jody McIntyre is a journalist and political activist. He has written for the the New Internationalist, The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, the New Statesman, Electronic Intifada and Disability Now. He was Guest Editor for the October 2012 issue of the New Internationalist. See Jody’s latest article on his travels to South America at: http://jodymcintyre.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/the-wheelchair-diaries/)
And I did do it! As a graduate student with a disability (SwD), I traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I spent six weeks studying Portuguese, learning about Brazilian culture, and observing/experiencing accessibility challenges in a foreign country. I have had more than a month to reflect on my journey, and now sum up my thoughts.
Overall, my experience was very good! The fact that I did this trip and successfully completed it on an academic, as well as travel-abroad level, was a huge accomplishment for me! The challenges were many but not that bad nor impossible to overcome. When I read about other PwDs who have traveled abroad to other less accessible places in the world, I feel humbled. My challenges were practically non-existent compared to some.
Like Ming, a U.S. university SwD who visited Zhouzhuang, an ancient water town in China. As a wheelchair user in a city with no accessibility, Ming literally crawled up ancient steps to see the sites: “My friend had to lift my wheelchair over tons of steps and bridges, while I crawled up and over them; my back actually kind of hurts now from all that climbing. But, if I was given the chance to decide again, I would still go to Zhouzhuang. It was an amazingly charming place with its ancient architecture that took you back in time” (Read the rest of Ming’s story at her blog: https://minginchina.wordpress.com/).
Based on my own research and personal experience, the most important aspects of traveling abroad for a PwD to keep in mind include: Pre-planning, Flexibility, Open Communication, and Funding. In this blog, I have described in detail what is needed in terms of pre-planning, flexibility and funding challenges. However, I did not describe the problems that arose with program organizers due to lack of communication.
From the start of my trip pre-planning back in March, program coordinators both inside and outside the USA were not as open with me about their concerns, hesitations, and assumptions regarding my disability. This was unfortunate. Once before my departure and once after my return, I received emails not meant for me that expressed impatience with my accommodation needs/and a ‘record of grades’ request (seemingly perceived as ‘demands’ and ‘a complaint’).
Because these emails seemed to come to me accidentally, I ultimately did not say anything to the organizers. I did discuss with my own university’s Accessibility Office Director as to how I should deal with these emails, and we decided I should leave things alone. However, these ‘accidental’ emails did make me realize that all was not what it seemed on the surface with these people. I wonder now, if given the opportunity again, how I would deal with this communication problem differently next time.
Communications between me and coordinators were only by email, since they were in Florida and Brazil, and I was in New Mexico. I initiated phone calls a few times, but emailing dominated. In hindsight, this was a big mistake. The coordinators had no idea with whom they were dealing. It was apparent when I got to RJ that the staff and faculty had discussed what I could and could not do, but they had failed to include me in the conversation.
The day before the final excursion during the last week, I asked where I should meet the group. I was told there were no accommodations for me this trip, and didn’t anyone speak to me about this? No, no one had. I was then told a faculty member “forgot” to inform me when I first arrived in Brazil that this particular field trip did not have accessibility. I was disappointed, but I did not push it since the trip was nearly finished, and I was exhausted.
It turns out–as the other students told me later–the place WAS accessible–much more so than the first field trip we went on that basically had 19th century accessibility (meaning NONE). And, on that first trip, students and Brazilian workers all made sure I was able to get up and down steep stairs to see everything.
The knowledge I gained from this incident serves as a learning lesson for PwDs and Program Coordinators in future travel abroad programs that include PwDs. So what was the lesson? I encourage students with disabilities who plan to travel abroad to establish open lines of communication with planners early on.
Try to meet with these people in person, if you can. Talk by telephone or Skype as much as possible, since emails can be easily misinterpreted. Be sure to find out what sort of field trips/excursions are planned, so they can be aware of your needs, and you can be aware whether you can take part–or not–in planned trips.
Let them get to know you BEFORE you get to your program destination, so that everyone knows what to expect on all sides. Also, the coordinators might be encouraged to plan more inclusive field trips.
It is difficult to deal with cross-cultural perceptions, especially when they are underneath the surface (passive-aggressive). This is an area I want to further explore in my future studies.
For my part, I would say that I did not visit enough sites, did not participate in enough activities, nor did I take the opportunity to go on more outings. Part of this had to do with my stamina and age. A younger PwD should be encouraged to speak up when program coordinators make assumptions about the student’s abilities to participate or not participate in various activities. Confront assumptions head-on! Again, it is important to establish open communication lines and a good rapport with program coordinators at the beginning of your planning.
However, on a positive note, overall, people were respectful toward my disability, and extremely helpful when needed. I had a wonderful and versatile Personal Care Assistant, Cristiane, who accompanied me on excursions and cooked delicious meals for me, including the best plate of black beans and rice I ever tasted! The IBEU program coordinators made sure all my accessible needs were met before I arrived. They checked to be sure my apartment was accessible, made sure I had a working motorized wheelchair, that the sidewalks could accommodate my wheelchair, and much more during my six-week stay.
FUNDS: One more very important factor to keep in mind is your budget. In spite of my having received a fellowship that covered my travel and program expenses, plus home stay costs and an added stipend for miscellaneous costs, I still came up short due to additional expenses to cover my accessible tool needs, such as renting a motorized wheelchair for six weeks, renting portable equipment I needed in my apartment, etc.
Fortunately, I received a scholarship from my university’s Accessible Resource Center. The extra funds helped to cover the additional cost of renting an accessible studio apartment. I also had to dip into my financial aid funds to help me make it through the program.
Travel for PwDs is more expensive. I was not as prepared for this surprise, but it all worked out in the end. It was scary at times in Brazil, as money was not always readily available when I needed it. Be sure and check with your airline about free shipping for medical equipment. Most airlines will do this for free–thank God! My carrier was American Airlines. I am very happy with AA’s accessibility and pre-planning assistance for my accommodations.
In conclusion, my study of accessibility in Rio for the 2014 and 2016 events and beyond continues, especially after this six-week program. At summer’s end, I have only scratched the surface in my work. Although I observed a lot of positive developments around accessibility in Rio de Janeiro, there is much more I need to explore.
The city needs to not only prepare for the two big events in the next four years (infrastructure), but also should plan beyond 2016, by continuing to make all of its beaches, restaurants, public buildings/museums/rest rooms generally accessible for all. Much can be learned from input by national and international disability groups, as well as from previous Olympics-Paralympics events in other world cities–i.e., South Africa and China (Rolling Rains Report, July 2012).
I imagine I will need to return to Brazil many more times! I hope to continue my work around disability issues and international exchange between the USA and Brazil, as well as to explore more deeply the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics/Paralympics and accessibility issues. Hopefully I will find some kind of job/career working in some capacity with students with disabilities and other under-represented groups between the USA and South America…and the world!
Or maybe I will continue on to a Ph.D program in International Communications. Who knows? DAR UM JEITO!